Kids, Language, and Wisdom

A few weeks ago I was cooking dinner and noticed that my oldest was reading the dictionary. Curious, I asked him what he was learning. He told me that he’d gotten the dictionary at school and he was just “looking around” and continued to flip pages. I noticed that he had stopped in the “S” section. I had a hunch what he was looking for.

“What words are you looking up,” I asked. “Oh nothing really,” he said with a sheepish and somewhat embarrassed look on his face.

We bantered back and forth a bit until he told me that one of the kids at school had spelled “shit” during lunch and everyone giggled. I asked him what that word meant, and he shrugged saying that’s the word he was looking up in the dictionary.

As we continued talking, it was clear to me that he and his friends were learning new words that had already, at age 8, been deemed “bad” words. Bad and Good aren’t very helpful categories in life, especially when dealing with the immaterial, and thus I wanted to help him understand that words are neither good or bad. I explained that words are like trees — they just are what they are. How we choose to use these words determines if it’s helpful or not. We can use trees to make houses, paper, furniture and a host of other things that can have helpful uses. In the same light, some people could use wood for harmful uses such as arrows, a battering ram, or as a bat/club to hurt someone.

As parents, its our responsibility to help our kids learn how to engage with the world that they live in: Not necessarily to protect them from it. It might have been a lot easier to take the dictionary away from my son, or to tell him not to look up those words for fear of how he might misuse them. But this reaction would only reinforce his curiosity about these words as taboo topics.

Parents need to help their kids deconstruct cultural meanings ascribed to certain words and help them fashion a wisdom-oriented approach to using language. Not everyone who knows the definition of “shit” can be wise enough to know when and how to use it. Sometimes, there are appropriate uses of words that have otherwise been labeled as “bad”, just as there are times where the use of that word can be damaging and harmful to others: It takes wisdom to know the difference.